“The first samovar, the silver one at the end with the little bird perched atop the key, is filled to the top with Life,” she says, “freshly brewed each morning at sunrise exactly. A few drops will perk up most customers on a Monday morning, to be sure. And most of them need it, don’t you think?”
This is what she tells me—the owner of The Seven Samovars—when I arrive at work the first morning. I gape at her. Something like that is way more than a girl can take this early in the morning.
“Just a few drops, mind. A full cup . . . well, a full cup can convince the weary soul ready to close the door and lie down that final time that perhaps there’s a little something left to discover. You will not need so much very often. The last time I served a full cup was nearly . . . two years ago, now, it must be. David: small coffee, black, every morning with his wife, Judith: large chamomile tea with a spoon of raspberry jam. That’s the Russian way to take tea: a spoonful of jam in the tea instead of sugar.
“Every morning for three years they come in. Every morning but the Sabbath, of course. Very proper. We say hello and they sit and read the paper. Together, always together. They came here to live with their son, Paul: large latte, extra cream with a shot of hazelnut syrup. They survived the war, you know. He was a watchmaker, and they got out of Europe in time, but most of their family was long gone. Anyway, three years, nearly every morning, always together. And then one day, two days, three days, nothing. The fourth day, David’s here by himself. What happened, I ask? It’s a stroke, he says. Doctor’s not sure if she’ll wake or if she does, how much of her will be left.
“He stands there, then. The line is out the door, but he’s so lost. Small coffee, black. Every day for three years, but he can’t remember. She always ordered first, you see. So I give him a cup. Full. And you’d have done the same, I’m sure. You can just tell who needs it. I made him drink it right there, never mind the rest of the line.
“And he finished his cup and handed it back to me. He stood a little taller, and got his regular. Small coffee, black. And he asked for one more of those “fancy drinks” I’d just given him. He was going to take it to the hospital for his wife, and see if the smell might not just bring her around.
“A solid recovery. That’s what the doctor said, David told me, ‘a solid recovery,’ which made us both laugh. ‘What do doctors know anyway,’ he said. Within a week, they were back to the same old routine, and two years more she lived. They died on the same day, then, in Paul’s house.
“So, you see, you will not need a full cup of life very often, but you will know when it is time.”
It must be the early morning hour because I say nothing. What on Earth can I say? I met Erzebet—“Call me Betty, dear”—yesterday when I came in for a coffee and saw the Help Wanted sign sitting next to the shortbread. I look askance at her as she’s tying her apron on, as if the words coming out of her mouth were normal everyday things and not the words of a crazy person. And there’s no way I’m calling her “Betty.”
Now we’re standing in front of the eponymous samovars, which sit on the long counter behind the register alongside the modern espresso machine. I’d only even seen the antique water boilers in museums before. Each has an elaborate urn that sits atop a small stand with just enough room to place a cup beneath the spigot. Two are silver, three are brass, one is white and blue porcelain, and the one in the center is enameled, painted black with red and pink flowers. I’m pleasantly surprised the samovars are in use, though they don’t look electric. When I walked in yesterday I’d thought they were only decorative.
And now I find out she thinks . . . I don’t know what to think about what she just said. I look back at the front door. No. Leaving now would be a record even for me—gone before the store even opened. And the morning started out so well. I was familiar with the burr grinder and the espresso machine from my previous place of employment, so I’d been on auto-pilot for the first few minutes, her gentle patter nearly lulling me back to sleep with its coffee shop familiarity.
“Cream, milk, and soy here. There’s a rush at 2:45 every day as the high school across the street lets out and another at 4:30 as the lawyers get ready for their late nights. Let me show you how to ring up a sale. The baker, my brother, Sandor . . .” She gestures to the tall man with the brush mustache, setting kolaches and blueberry scones on the wooden boards inside the display case, and lowers her voice to continue. “He comes in at three every morning to begin baking the pastries. He also lays them out in the counter.” She rolls her eyes. “Let him do it. He’s an artist and very particular.”
I look over at her brother. He obviously heard her, but says nothing. He’s putting pain au chocolat on a tiered stand, and looks at the display for a few seconds before deliberately placing each subsequent pastry.
All normal. And then, wham. The waters of life or whatever she thinks is inside the samovar. For sale with your morning muffin.
Erzebet moves further down the counter. I gather my wits and try to pay attention. Watching her dive headfirst into crazy will at least make for a few good stories later at the bar.
“The second one, right here, contains the waters of Lethe.” This samovar is brass and shaped like a fat little barrel on its side, standing on a small base worked to look like a chicken’s foot. The spigot and key are a golden beak and cock’s comb. She turns to me with a concerned and questioning look on her face. “You know that one, yes?”
I realize with some surprise that I do. “Um . . . the River of Forgetfulness, right?” Thanks Edith Hamilton, wherever you are.
She beams and pats me on the arm. “It’s nice to meet a girl who has her classics down. A lot of use you’ll get from that later.” She turns back to the samovar. “I get a gallon delivered every two weeks—I’m too old now to be traipsing down there and back again that often—but I do doctor it up a little. Very dangerous in excess, as you might imagine, but just the thing for the wounded soul who needs a little distance.”
She gestures to the set of mismatched teacups and saucers that cluster around the samovar’s foot. “To be served in bone china for utmost potency, but . . .” and here she points at me with a sharp look. “They must be triple rinsed after or there’s hell to pay.
“The previous girl, Antigone—five shots of vanilla syrup in a small coffee with extra whipped cream—I should have known right then that it would never work out. She forgot and only ran them through the sterilizer twice, even though I had been very specific. And that afternoon, we had the ladies of the Scarlet Hat Society for their monthly tea.
“They want the whole proper set up. Scones with sour cherry jam and clotted cream. I get Sandor to do them some sandwiches—which he complains about, doesn’t he, every month, but they keep getting fancier, as if I can’t see. Last month, it was salmon mousse piped onto pumpernickel squares with a dill crème fraîche.” She pauses for a second to peek over at her brother, still fussing with the display. “Dill crème fraîche, I tell you.” She shakes her head. “And then in the middle of the tea, Dorcas Littlefield, normally a tall, nonfat latte with soymilk—but Lapsang Souchong with lemon that day—drops her cup with a clatter, jumps up and whirls around, staring at the group.
“‘What am I doing here? Where’s Charlie?’ she asks. That was her husband—coffee with a little milk only, if I recall, which I’m sure I do, though nearly twenty years now he’s been dead. And then she pulls the hat off her head and looks down at herself in that—I’ll say it—rather unflattering purple dress that was cut too low for her and she should have known it; she looks at herself and shouts out—and please excuse my language dear, but the story requires it—she shouts out ‘And what the fuck am I wearing?’ and throws that scarlet tragedy of a hat onto the floor.
“Well . . . you can imagine, I’m sure, what happened then. Tears and shouting, gasps of horror. You’ve seen the sort. The sandwiches ended up on the floor and I lost three teacups and a saucer. The other ladies calmed her down and called her daughter, but done was done. The last twenty years, nearly all gone. Her children, her husband’s death, the birth of her first grandson. A terrible tragedy, really, and all because that fool girl couldn’t be bothered to hit ‘Sani-Rinse’ one more time.”
I stop moving after her and stand frozen at the corner of the counter and Loony Bin Lane. Holy shit, this woman is nuts. Her brother is back in the kitchen, but he must hear the sound of my jaw hitting the floor because he sticks his head through the door. “Erzebet, enough.” She looks at him and frowns, annoyed.
“Yes, yes, Sandor. I know.” She reaches out and takes a clear glass mug from the open shelf nearby, and fills it from the third samovar, the porcelain one, white with large blue flowers painted on. The liquid is thick like kefir as it flows from the small golden faucet. When she hands it to me, I hesitate. I briefly consider that she might be poisoning me, but, then again, The Seven Samovars had been packed yesterday when I came in and poisoning customers (and staff) was surely bad for business.
Erzebet waits, patiently, until, at last, I bring it to my mouth and take a tentative sip. It’s pale gold, cool and delicious, redolent of apples and something else.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It makes people tell the truth,” she says, suddenly serious. “It is the most terrible of my offerings.” She takes the cup out of my hands before I can take another sip. “That’s enough, then. How do you feel?”
I think about it. “Weirdly calm,” I say, and realize it is, in fact, the truth. She hands me a poppy seed kolache and I eat it in two bites.
“And what are you thinking of me right now?”
My mouth opens before I can think. “That you must be crazy, with all this talk of Life and Lethe and whatever’s in those other ones, but your brother makes great pastries, and I really need this job because I got fired from my temp job yesterday. It smells really good in here, and I think I’m starting to believe that whatever that is I drank really does make people tell the truth, since I never talk like this and it makes me wonder what’s in the other ones and if this whole thing is for real.”
I take a deep breath and feel like I’ve finished a short sprint. Huh. Maybe not so crazy after all.
Erzebet nods and puts the cup under the counter in a dishpan bound for the kitchen. “That’s about what I expected.” She smiles. “I told Sandor you’d do fine. I knew as soon as you ordered yesterday. Large coffee, one sugar, with a small splash of milk. A sensible drink for a sensible mind. A little rich, a little sweet, but not trying to hide that solid bitterness underneath. Perfect for what I had in mind.”
What did she have in mind? But again, she’s talking before I can ask my question.
“Well, let’s continue. We have a bit more to cover before the shop opens.”
We’re now at the center of the counter and the black samovar sits low and squat, like it’s somehow guarding the others and being guarded by them at the same time. Hand-painted with peonies and chrysanthemums in shocking shades of pink and red, they draw the eye into swirls of petals and ruffled edges. It sits on little brass feet inside a matching tray with an ornate bowl worked like a large leaf set beneath the tap.
“It looks Russian,” I say, since I have to tell the truth. But the truth, I realize at this point, is that I have no idea why I’m still here listening to all this. But I am, and I don’t seem to be going anywhere. What has my life come to that I am considering staying here?
Erzebet laughs. I have surprised her. “Yes, it is Russian. Very good. It belonged to Maria Feodorovna, mother of the last Tsar. A distant relative by marriage to a cousin of mine.” She makes a small expression of distaste, but I can’t tell if it’s for the Tsarina or her cousin.
“Starlight goes in this one. You must collect it only on cold, clear nights. It is to be boiled down for seven hours, seven minutes, and seven seconds exactly. Drinking it produces dreams and visions for when a person needs that sort of thing.
“We have a group of Moroccans who come in every other Thursday to argue about the Qur’an and poetry and drink hot mint tea. They tell me that my mint tea is the best outside Rabat, and ask how I do it, which I never tell them, but the secret is two sprigs of lemon verbena and one of basil mixed in with the mint. I grow all three in golden pots sitting in my kitchen window; facing east, of course.
“Adil Ali Boulami—espresso with five sugars when it’s not mint tea—he is the main instigator of their arguments. I give him the starlight quite often. His grandfather was a Sufi mystic and Adil Ali has a power of his own. His poetry demands the starlight, even if the others don’t believe me when I tell them what I’m pouring into his glass. People don’t always get what they want in their dreams—I’m sure you understand—but poets . . . they are always pulling out their dreams to capture on paper, so they are not afraid.
“But . . .” She holds up a finger in warning. “You must never serve it during the dark of the moon, even to the poets.” She shudders. “Some doors must stay closed.”
Something about the way she says this freaks the hell out of me and I find myself promising not to before we move on.
“I keep Death in the fifth samovar,” she says, gesturing to the other silver one, the tallest and most complicated of them all. It takes me a few seconds to absorb her words and I must have made a sound without realizing it because she nods and continues.
“Yes, dear, Death. Poison, really.” She sighs. “No matter what the spy novels say, it’s nearly impossible to create something colorless, odorless, tasteless, and untraceable, yet completely lethal, but I keep trying. At the moment, ours tastes like pink lemonade. I place an almond on the plate beneath the tap to remind myself not to give it out to children at tea.”
Holy crap. Wrong turn. Poison? Can she be serious? “You can’t be . . .” I trail off at the look on her face.
“Oh, I’m very serious, dear. Some come here for my Death specifically. I’m well known for it. Gentle and sure, Erzebet’s Death is; that’s what they all say. Sometimes that’s the way you want it, though you’re probably too young to have such thoughts. Wait until you’re my age.”
She brightens. “But Death is the most useful to mix with the others. A few drops with Love to let someone go. Or one full shot mixed with the Truth to believe your own lies.
“I’ve only had to kill a dream once, though, in all this time. Death and Starlight make a bitter drink, and I wept alongside her as she drank the cup dry.” She sighs. “A sad day.” Then she smiles. “Not like today. New apprentices always make me happy.”
Wait. What? “What do you mean ‘apprentice’? I’m your new barista.”
Erzebet laughs. “Are you sure? The sign on the counter appears to the right person, you know. After that disaster with the last girl, I tweaked the spell. A sensible girl. A practical girl. I told you. I knew as soon as you ordered.
“And anyone else would have run out of the shop long before now.”
Before I can respond, she gestures to the last two, brass, on the counter, the ones closest to the register. “The sixth is for Love, and what do you think it tastes like?”
“I’m here to make espresso, not serve Love to the heartsick,” I say, half to myself. But I’m inhaling deeply before I can stop myself. “Cherries?”
“Oh, cherries?” A huge grin breaks out on her face. “I haven’t had someone with cherries in the longest time. Not since my late cousin Elek met his future bride, Magdolna, on the street out front. Goodness, what a wedding. Seven children and all of them full of color and ideas and . . .” She winks at me. “You could have an interesting time ahead of you, I’m sure, if you want to try a sip.” I blush, but think about coming back to it later.
“Love tastes different for everyone; I can tell from the smell, usually, but not always. Vanilla with cinnamon is quite common, but then again, most loves are, don’t you think? Everyday things that keep their feet moving forward, but nothing special. But my Love will thaw the coldest heart, I guarantee it. Only my mother made better.
“We have a writer, Annika—normally Darjeeling with milk and honey—who comes in for a cup of Love on the last Friday of the month before she meets her lover. I can tell because her Love smells of oranges and fennel and honey—a wild love—but you would not know for looking at her. A girl should never go out without lipstick, I always say, but obviously her lover doesn’t seem to mind.
“And whatever your Love tastes like, it always goes well with chocolate.” She shows me a small basket of chocolate bars wrapped in pink foil on the front counter by the register. “It’s the one thing I won’t let Sandor do. I grind the chocolate with chiles and almonds and turmeric; it inflames the tongue and prepares the heart.”
Life. Death. Love. Dreams. Witch. Apprentice. What did I get myself into?
And clearly, at this point, I’m staying. Why? Do I . . . want this? Do I acknowledge to myself that I felt right from the minute I walked in yesterday? That I knew I was going to apply to work here even before I ordered my drink? I don’t know what to think.
“And what’s in the last one?” I ask before I can help it. What else could there be?
“The seventh . . . ?” She’s surprised, as if it weren’t obvious. “The seventh one contains coffee. What else? Strong-brewed with cinnamon and vanilla.” And just to prove it, she puts a cup beneath the little brass faucet, turns the key and pulls a full mug. The spicy scent of the coffee, already sharp in the air from the espresso machine, takes on new overtones. She sits the cup in front of me, and I realize I need it.
“This is for when the real work needs to be done, when decisions must be made. Love and Death and Starlight will only take a person so far, you know. Living requires hard work no matter what the drink, and sometimes there’s nothing to do but sit down, have a cup of coffee and talk about it.
“Besides, crafting the rest of them requires long hours and I need the coffee to get going in the morning.”
I take a deep drink. It’s so hot it scalds my tongue and the roof of my mouth, but I like how it makes me feel. Sharp and present. Like I’m right here. Ready for anything. And I realize that with my coffee, I have decided. I’ll stay and see how it goes.
And now we’re at the register. To my right, Sandor has finally finished and the wooden boards are regally piled with almond horns and small quiches and rugelach. He makes one last adjustment to a pile of molasses-brown spice cookies and is satisfied at last. Erzebet touches his arm in thanks as he passes by, and he nods at us both before he goes back to the kitchen.
“Double sweet green tea; a gentle drink for someone so particular, really . . .” She turns back to me. “Customers coming in for a latte or a cup of chamomile on a bad day will ask you about the samovars. Most think as you did, that they are just for decoration. You just tell them that when they need what the samovars hold, it will be waiting for them.
“You have it clear, then? Yes?”
I nod. What the hell. When she first mentioned “other duties, as assigned,” I assumed she meant cleaning the bathrooms and running deliveries. Instead . . . let’s give this a try.
Erzebet smiles and in her expression, I see my entire conversation with myself writ large.
“Perfect. I just know this is going to work. A sensible drink tells true, I always say. Now open the door and let us see who must be taken care of today. My samovars are full, and the water is boiling.”
© 2012 Peter Sursi